July 27, 2005

Witnesses Say Bears Back in Switzerland

ZERNEZ, Switzerland (AP) -- Bears may have returned to Switzerland, more than 100 years after disappearing from their Alpine habitat, according to eyewitnesses.

The first bear was spotted late Monday evening by three eyewitnesses in eastern Switzerland's Ofenpass National Park near the country's Italian and Austrian borders, park officials said.

But officials said they were still searching for key evidence such as bear droppings, foot prints or hair to confirm their return.

The witnesses claimed to have spotted the bear with binoculars from a distance of 600 meters. They say the brown bear emerged from a thick wood onto an open meadow, where they were able to watch it for 20 minutes, but were unable to photograph because there was too little light.

Park officials, who have been expecting the return of the bear for months, say the testimony of the eyewitnesses is credible.

Swiss authorities began earlier this year to set aside land in the southeast of the country to offer bears a corridor of connected space between Switzerland and northern Italy, where a growing bear population indicated they might expand their travels.

The Switzerland-based Worldwide Fund for Nature has said bears should be able to establish a new home in Switzerland - whose capital Bern means bear - but how well they acclimatize to the surroundings will depend on the acceptance of the population.

While conservationists would be glad to welcome the animals back, Swiss shepherds are worried for their flocks, which are already under threat from rising numbers of wolves in the country.

The last bear in Switzerland was killed in 1904.